Fall '92: Classic Atlanta
TOM HIGGINS' SCUFFS
Saturday, Sep. 01, 2012
The great hope was for Richard Petty to go out in a blaze of glory.
Instead, NASCARs greatest star went out in a blaze.
It happened on Nov. 15, 1992, at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Hooters 500, by many accounts the most memorable event ever in stock car racing in terms of multiple dramas.
Certainly, no single race in the sanctioning bodys history, dating to 1949, has held so many sub plots and story lines.
It was to be the career finale for Petty, the immensely popular seven-time champion and the winner of a record 200 races over the span of 35 years in the sport.
It was the biggest-ever battle for the coveted points championship, with six drivers holding a mathematical chance of capturing the rich championship going into the last of the seasons 29 races.
It marked the inaugural start at the Cup Series level for youthful Jeff Gordon, widely rated the most promising newcomer to the major circuit since Dale Earnhardt in 1979.
All this returns to mind as the 20th anniversary of those events looms as the Cup Series teams assemble again this weekend at Atlanta for the AdvoCare 500.
Petty had no illusions about winning for a final time. He was 55 years old and he hadnt triumphed since the Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1984, at Daytona International Speedway.
However, King Richard hoped to run well for the pleasure of his legion of followers.
It wasnt to be.
On the 94th of the races 328 laps on the 1.522-mile track Petty was swept into a seven-car crash. His famous No. 43 Pontiac burst into flame, bringing shrieks of terror from the thousands of fans packing the grandstands. "Oh, no! Dont let it end like this!" was the horrid thought on many minds.
It didnt, of course.
The fire was doused and Petty later laughed about it.
"At first them cats (the firemen) didnt have a fire extinguisher, he said, flashing his seemingly ever-present smile. I think they came over to get an autograph. I sent em back to get one.
Although the No. 43 was battered and blackened from the flames, Petty had his crew make enough repairs for him to get back on the track for the final laps. In characteristic deference to the fans and perhaps symbolically for himself, Petty wanted to be running at the finish. He took the checkered flag 35th, 231 laps behind.
Then, The King ran an extra lap and got the checkers again. This time, they signified the completion of a storied driving career covering 1,185 starts.
"God dont put many people on Earth and let 'em be able to go and do what I've done," Petty said. "It's been a wonderful life."
Gordons debut was somewhat similar to Pettys exit. Gordon wrecked, too, on the 164th lap. "I got enough of a taste of this to know I'm going to like it," said Gordon in what was to prove classic understatement.
Gordon, then 21, was driving a Chevrolet for Rick Hendrick, who had pirated the youngster with so much promise away from Ford. Gordon had starred spectacularly for Ford in what was then the Busch Series. But Ford officials failed to get Gordon under contract and he was able to jump to arch-rival Chevy.
Gordon finished 31st in that 92 Atlanta race, hardly a harbinger of things to come.
While the Petty saga played out, the chase for the championship continued on the track.
Davey Allison had gone into the Hooters 500 leading the standings by 30 over Alan Kulwicki and 40 up on Bill Elliott.
The likable son of 1983 Cup Series champion Bobby Allison, Davey needed to finish fifth or better to join his dad as a title-winner.
He was running fifth on the 254th lap when disaster struck. Ahead of him, the Chevrolet of Ernie Irvan suddenly slipped sideways exiting the fourth turn. Allison took evasive action, but to no avail. Daveys Ford plowed hard into Irvans car.
The damage forced Allisons car to the garage for lengthy repairs and he wound up 27th, destined to finish third in the point standings.
"It looked like Ernie had a flat tire or something," said a saddened Davey. "The car just got away from him. We just ran out of room and I couldnt miss him. We were just trying to run a smart race "
Allisons awful misfortune forged a showdown between Kulwicki and Elliott for the treasured title.
The plot thickened dramatically among the duo running first and second, with Elliott in front as the race wound down. Both were very low on fuel.
Kulwicki pitted on Lap 311 for gas. Elliott came in on Lap 314.
These stops enabled Terry Labonte who stayed on the track to lead the 315th lap, and this was to prove pivotal in favor of Kulwicki. Labonte got the five points awarded for leading a lap, denying them to Elliott.
"Awesome Bill From Dawsonville," the darling of Georgia fans, assumed the lead after the stops, and pulled away to get the checkered flag 8.06 seconds ahead of fellow Ford driver Kulwicki.
However, Kulwicki had led the most laps, 103, to 102 for Elliott, thus earning a bonus five points.
Kulwicki was the champion by a margin of 10 points. At the time, it was the closest finish in NASCAR history.
It took a stunned Kulwicki a bit to realize the magnitude of his accomplishment.
"Did we just do what I think we did?" he asked of his crew via radio. Jubilant replies told him that they had indeed.
It was an unlikely, only-in-America story for a team that was considered such a underdog. Such an underdog, in fact, that Kulwicki had removed the T from the title Thunderbird on his cars front bumper so that the name read "Underbird."
Kulwicki had come from Wisconsin in 1985 to pursue a Cup Series career, owning his team and driving, too.
He had spurned offers from bigger, richer operations to become a "hired driver," clinging to the dream of doing it "his way."
Now, probably to the surprise of everyone but himself and his teammates, he had reached the unreachable star.
"This is the answer to a long quest," said Kulwicki, who gathered his composure and "cool" enough to grab a comb and run it through his hair before emerging from the No. 7 orange and white Ford in Victory Lane. "I know there were a lot of people who said, 'He can't do that.' I hope I've made some believers. I'll cherish this day in Atlanta forever."
Epilogue: Alan Kulwicki got to enjoy his championship only until April 1, 1993, when he was killed in the crash of a private plane at Blountville, Tenn. Davey Allison lived only a little longer, until July 13, 1993, when he died of injuries suffered in the crash of a helicopter he was piloting.
Richard Petty continues in racing as a team owner, now fielding cars for drivers Marcus Ambrose and Aric Amirola.
Jeff Gordon has realized the success predicted for him, presently listing four Cup Series championships and 86 victories, the latter ranking him third on the all-time list behind only Pettys 200 and David Pearsons 105.